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Kevin Meyer


Discovering the Inner Merton

Lean’s surprising connections with Buddhism and Christianity

Published: Tuesday, November 10, 2015 - 17:58

“If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”
—Thomas Merton, Love and Living

Sometimes there are dots just waiting to be connected....

I was rather surprised when Pope Francis mentioned Thomas Merton in his address to Congress a couple weeks ago. I have learned a lot about Merton over the last decade while on a random intellectual quest that has included other seemingly unrelated modern-day folks like Hernando de Soto and Mario Vargas Llosa—a Nobel Prize winner who I happened to meet many years ago. Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude is one of my favorite books.

More on Thomas Merton in a bit. First some background.

People close to me know that for more than two decades I’ve had an annual goal to “do or learn something radically different.” From this I’ve learned to windsurf and dive, ran a full marathon, rebuilt a ’73 Triumph Spitfire (which, admittedly, is like working on a lawnmower), and skied five different countries over six consecutive days.

During the mid-90s I taught myself HTML programming, which turned into various projects that eventually helped create Gemba Academy. As I’ve become older, the annual projects have become less physical and more intellectual, including a year-long immersion into Buddhism that  included a trip to Bhutan which is just one of the 65 countries I have been to. Go and see... and learn.

Perhaps to assuage the concerns of some family members who were concerned about that particular intellectual odyssey, this year’s goal is a deep dive into Biblical history. Not the stories and history in the Bible, but a secular investigation of the history of the Bible. I’ve read probably a dozen books written by respected scholars—from multiple perspectives, since the historical accounts are far from settled.

What an unexpectedly fascinating journey! Humor me for a couple paragraphs while I expose my inner geek.

There are over 200,000 variants among 5,700 ancient Greek Biblical manuscripts alone, not even counting translation issues derived from them, created by the copying processes of amateur and professional scribes. In some cases these were an attempt to please their benefactors, and in others just plain sloppiness. Most are minor and fairly inconsequential, but some aren’t—for example, the last 12 verses of Mark and John 7:53–8:12, which are not found in any of the oldest manuscripts and are now assumed by scholars to have been added by scribes.

Compounding the intentional and unintentional copy and translation errors was the process of deciding what went into the Bible. This involved hundreds of potential texts as well as lists developed by high-profile folks, including a disingenuous ship merchant in the second century (a great story itself), and members of the synod of Hippo and councils of Carthage, Nicaea, and Rome in the fourth century. In some cases the politics of church control outweighed what was effectively an exercise in hindsight, called the “five guidelines of canonicity.”

Just when things seem settled, for better or worse, there were the discoveries of the Muratorian fragment in the Vatican archives in 1740, the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945, and the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947, which both confirmed and threw doubt on some of those earlier decisions.

History, perhaps especially religious history, has a way of being filled with more intrigue and drama than any novel written by even the best writer. Without getting into off-topic details, I will say that my quest this year has actually reinforced my own faith. Finding errors, and especially the process to understand the source of errors, can create authenticity.

So let’s get back to Thomas Merton and the interesting connections between the dots—yes, eventually including lean.

I first came across Merton during my deep dive into Buddhism a few years back. I was surprised to discover a large number of Christian scholars and Catholic priests, like Merton, who openly embraced components of Buddhism. Merton went further than most, with deep study into the Zen tradition, which he discussed in Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New Directions, 1968), as well as a book he co-authored with none other than the Dalai Lama, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New Directions, second edition 2010).

At the core of Merton’s interest was his belief that most Christian traditions had become so focused on ritual and dogma that they had forgotten about the quest for understanding and a true personal relationship with the ultimate source of that knowledge.

Both in his writing and his own spiritual journey, he embraced the fundamental Buddhist concept that there is no single, perfect path, and that each of us must learn and understand ourselves before creating our own unique journey. That does conflict with many Christian, and especially Catholic, traditions. But as we'll soon see, not all of them.

Hence, that’s why it was remarkable that Pope Francis lauded Thomas Merton, a Catholic priest who believed in multiple paths to salvation and once said, “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity. I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.” Wow.

Allow me to add another dot. For most of the current era, the Gnostics were more commonly known as “those crazy Gnostics.” They were associated with strange rituals and beliefs, loosely associated with Christianity, and their scriptures were quickly discarded by the early Vatican councils and not included in the traditional Biblical canon. Then the Nag Hammadi texts were found in 1945 and fully translated a couple decades later (interestingly with financial support from none other than the noted psychiatrist Carl Jung), and suddenly there was support for some of the earliest known manuscripts that had been deemed too controversial by the early church.

Contrary to the prior perception of Gnostics, these newly discovered texts described a spiritual belief system far more aligned with traditional Christianity than originally thought, with one of the major differences being they did not insist that everyone must believe as they did.

To the Gnostics, faith is an inner experience, still generally aligned with classical Christianity, but one that does not have to be the same for everyone and is grounded in individual investigation, introspection, reflection, and circumstance—as opposed to ritual. It is a dynamic process of seeking truth, not arrogantly declaring it. Starting to sound familiar?

And this, finally, becomes the tie back to lean.

Almost daily I come across articles, questions, and comments about the “true path to lean”—and the supposedly correct sequence of tools performed in the singularly correct fashion to accomplish a transformation. That misconception is what, along with not understanding the respect-for-humanity principle, causes most lean failures.

Like the spiritual journeys of Buddhists, Gnostics, and many Christians like Thomas Merton, when on a lean journey you must first seek to learn and understand, contemplate and reflect on how the knowledge applies to your circumstance and beliefs, and only then apply what makes sense to create your own path.

Learn about lean, create a relationship with the underlying knowledge of lean, and apply it based on circumstance, data, and beliefs. Don’t simply accept what others say or copy what others do.

“Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new. Thus life is always new.”
—Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Learn and experience new things. Live. Create dots. If you create a lot of dots, sometimes interesting connections can be made.

First published Oct. 15, 2015, on Kevin Meyer’s blog.


About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.